iPad as disruptive innovation in education

iPad in classroom

A recent meeting with a friend who is interested in technology in education, a NYTimes article More schools embracing iPad as a learning tool and recent flood of attention on the growing tablet PC market got me thinking about the potential of tablet PC’s (Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab etc) as a disruptive innovation for education.

Here’s are 5 attributes of tablet PC’s that I think may help to tip the current education system.

1. Data driven. For the first time in education history we have the opportunity to monitor students progress in minute detail through tablet PC’s. A good example of this is the TeacherMate learning systems which has already been relatively successful.

Teachers can see which students are falling behind and where they need help. It also shows areas where students excel. This opens the potential that given this data, education can be personalized to some degree to fit the needs of each individual student. If advances in biotech allows us to dream a future of personalized drug treatments, why can’t we dream an age of personalized education? There could be a core curriculum that every student must fulfill, however with data on each student, they could also have a tailored curriculum that meets their aptitude, interests and areas where they excel.

2. Open ended. Many mention the benefits of tablet PC as a replacement for heavy and expensive textbooks in the classroom. Yes, that’s an obvious solution, but I think they are missing the point.

I don’t like the notion of technology being relegated to eBooks in schools simply because this makes them just digitized versions of a the traditional closed knowledge system: books. There is nothing wrong with books. Books have worked fine for hundreds of years and I am sure they will continue to serve us for the foreseeable future. But there is something not quite 21st Century about text-”books”. Especially the kind that is government vetted, approved and issued, as we have in Korea.

Tablet PC’s are open-ended meaning apps can be developed that not only teach the core concepts but can be open to tap the infinite and dynamic knowledge that is embodied in the Web. This is one of the founding principles of OLPC (One Laptop Per Child initiative). If OLPC’s are doing this already in developing countries where they are deployed, why not in our classrooms?

3. Networked. Kids learn from each other. As Mitra Sugata mentions in his inspiring TED Talk: The child-driven education, kids are consistently teaching each other. If you look at how a teenager does her homework, you’ll see that she is consistently messaging her peers for information. In this always-online, socially networked world, knowledge-making and learning has become inherently collaborative.

A networked device allows for communication, collaboration and peer learning. Learning to collaborate is key to surviving in this ever increasingly networked society. As Steven Johnson points out in his book, Where good ideas come from (also see: TEDtalk, animation), innovations come less from lone geniuses in our midst but as a result of collaborations that build on the knowledge and ideas within fluid networks.

4. Portable. There are no cables attached to an iPad, and the battery lasts a whole day. This is more significant that it sound. This means kids can use them for a whole school day. This means they can work by themselves, in a classroom setting, in the library or huddled around a desk with their peers in a group project. It goes with them wherever they go. We still have “computer labs” in schools, where kids come to interact at fixed times in their curriculum. Being portable means they have a personal assistant with them at all times, with the all above mentioned attributes that this entails.

5. Interactive. The new tablet PC are inherently interactive because they are touch enabled. Being able to touch something is a giant leap from the moderated experience of typing a command, or click a mouse on a screen. Touching something evokes an emotional response, which allows for a far more satisfying user experience as anyone who has seen kids interact with an iPad would attest.

Tablet PC’s force developers of educational application to rethink the whole user experience (I would hope). It brings a whole new dimension of interactivity to applications that go far beyond the point-and-click variety. A storybook for example cannot be just a “flip the page” experience. Characters and objects need to be responsive. You may even be able to rearrange the story and it’s outcome by directly interacting with the story.

Touch-enabled interaction really opens up a whole new area that had been explored only in limited ways on a desktop computer environment. You can now have the constructivist learning environment that Lego afford. We have yet to see these types of applications come into full blossom, but I am sure it’s only around the corner.

Maybe I’ve painted an overly rosy picture of technology. Every technology has its perils. I can tell you that my 4 year-old is already addicted to my (now his) iPad. Technology makes things worse a lot of times, but that should not take away for the opportunities it does afford us. We have to be mindful and vigilant about its pitfalls, and make sure kids are interacting with technology within a guided, safe environment. No conscientious parent would let their kids wander by themselves in the streets, which is tantamount to what we are doing if we allow kids to access the open web, by themselves with no control or moderation.

As with many things, it is hard to innovate from within. Just ask Michelle Rhee. However, there are rare opportunities that we can leverage to make change happen. I certainly wish that this time technology, in the form of tablet PC, in the right hands and minds, is the push we need to upgrade our antiquated education systems.

Photo credit: macattck (flickr)

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